Be Awake

It came as a surprise to find myself compelled to reflect on consciousness and mortality. It happened because I went to a Zen retreat by accident. But then, though there are surprises in this life, we may collaborate in bringing ourselves to the place of surprise—to the brink, or to the understanding that the brink is never very far.

True enough, the weekend was billed as a “Zen” retreat. But I had assumed that the retreat master, who is both a Jesuit priest and a Zenroshi (acknowledged teacher), would simply give a lecture about Zen and let me alone to wander around in silence, pray, read and enjoy three squares without preparation or cleanup. Instead I encountered a schedule of formal meditation that began at 6:15 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m., with an optional Mass after that! My first thought was, “Nobody can make me do this.” But having named my resistance, I let myself be seduced by the challenge.


The meditation room, or zendo,was the solarium, now stripped of furnishings and replaced with six rows of eight black cushions. The large rectangular space was even more austere than usual, and yet beautiful, with its stone floor and three sides made entirely of glass. It is well named, tracking the sun throughout the day and opening on to rolling hills and huge venerable trees. My fellow retreatants and I filed into the room quietly, were handed a smaller black pillow to perch upon and were directed to the square we would occupy for the next three days. It was a simple matter to learn the etiquette of initial bows, a posture of hands folded mid-chest, a movement of even, unhurried steps. Over and over in a rhythm of sitting and walking (zazen and kinhin), 48 persons of diverse age and station rose and returned to the cushions like so many geese in file.

The activity of zazen consists of sitting completely still and breathing. The recommendation during this activity is that one should concentrate on breathing (“Pay attention to your breathing!”) and attempt to banish all thought (“Acknowledge the thought, then let it go”). Strictly speaking, it seems possible that anyone of average mental and physical health can do this for a little while. Yet anyone who tries it for the slightest interval quickly realizes it is devilishly difficult. To be conscious of breathing, of this alone—the simplest, most basic activity synonymous with living—and yet deprive the “greedy mind” of all else! Of course, it is consciousness that is confronted here. It seems that it is not enough for us humans to be alive, breathing, unless we know we are.

At 5:45 a.m., through sleep and pitch dark comes a tuneless clip-clop, like a New Year’s Eve noisemaker, to wake the 48 to greet the day and greetroshi. I throw on clothes eagerly, arrive in the candle-lit solarium awake, rejoicing in the alpaca sweater that prevents me from shivering, but not from working against the chill that surrounds every pore, moving now in streams of air as I concentrate on breathing, attentive to roshi’s path of greeting so that I bow properly.

During the first kinhin (walking meditation), about 6:30, we are outdoors in a chill that just straddles uncomfortable and exhilarating. The light is tender, eager; the sun on its way but not yet arrived; the smell of the autumnal earth better than the most exquisite perfume. But I let these thoughts go, yes I do, and concentrate on the footfalls that replace breath during the walk—even and light footfalls, a pleasant rhythm, 48 pairs of feet connecting to the earth. And back indoors the greater warmth consoles immediately. Back to the black cushions and the breathing.

After breakfast,roshigives a brief orientation about Zen. Mostly he tells us what it is not. This is probably just as well, for why would you want some new thoughts cluttering up your mind when the old ones were hard enough to banish? But there is a hint of encouragement in his remarks. Zen practice has to do with becoming more human, more compassionate, more alive. He leaves it to us to conclude that this goal is worth no small effort. These are almost the only words for the day.

It is still early, and we return to breathing. I cannot fail to notice my great good luck to be on the south side of the room so that a warming sun travels across my back for the interval of two zazens. But it is bad luck, perhaps, that the fellow in charge of sounding the gong to halt each period of stillness is almost directly in front of me. No matter how hard I try not to, I see him raise a thick rounded stick, check his watch, contemplate its second hand, and finally strike the round metal pot that renders a pleasing tone and several lower reverberations that my ear follows to stillness, as a thirsty man might pursue a drop of dew. Sometimes the interval between his raising the stick and striking the pot seems quite long. At other times it seems as if only in the moment of his raising it have I finally discovered a smooth untroubled breath, which he will now mercilessly interrupt.

Lunch is welcome. The food is good, the line tedious. I devise some little task to delay coming, then walk through the buffet unhindered. The afternoon is the same as the morning, minus the sun. Roshi breaks silence to say that afternoons are the hardest. “It is always afternoon in hell,” as he puts it. My lower back, my knees and my hips are awake. But I let the thought go. I try to, anyway. We have a tea break at four o’clock, and the taste of honey in the last drop of hot liquid yields undue pleasure.

Night comes on, and the zendo/solarium is again candle-lit, again cold, colder than it was in the morning, as darkness deepens and snatches away all color save the pallid yellow of the flame. Ninety more minutes of zazen/kinhin, sitting/walking. Walking indoors now so as not to get lost or stumble in the dark. We tread single file up and down the long hallway outside the zendo, our stockinged feet purring as waves on an inlet. Three times we return single file to the zendo, and sit and breathe again.

Finally my friend raises his stick for the last time. I expect to move out of the room freely, but in the brief time it takes to stretch out our legs and restore circulation, a woman next to the man with the stick begins to chant. Or rather, she is announcing something in a kind of elongated speech, her tone flat and unpleasant, which has the effect of forcing me to take in the content, in an effort to minimize the sound. As a singer, I’m really annoyed by her voice. This is what she says: “May I respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance. Time passes and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken. This night your life is diminished by one. Do not squander your life.”

The gong sounds again, three times, its mellow chime contrasting with the woman’s voice. Both her tone and her words have the effect of provoking me to mild umbrage. Who is this stranger to take it upon herself to douse me with this message with no warning, no permission, no mitigating phrase? Who is she to tell me to awaken? Yet even as I turn these thoughts over, I marvel at my own defensiveness.

The next day’s structure is exactly the same. The alternation of chill and warmth, sunlight and shadow give me great pleasure, as they always have, and this I make no attempt to suppress. I merely try to take in the experience without ratiocination. I have a little more success with posture, discovering a high-cushioned genuflection that I can ease into for 20 minutes at a time. But I have no more success with thought-banishing. If anything, thoughts multiply, and altruistic notions play with vengeful memories, silly observations, ideas for work, for trips, for friendship. But at some time in the deep curve of the afternoon, at a time when the sun has abandoned our side and smiles tantalizingly across the room, maybe out of the brief phrasesroshicalls out occasionally to encourage us, it comes to me clearly.

To abandon thought, to submerge consciousness into breath is to yield the self, relativize the “I”—and that is exactly what I resist. The idea of being enlightened may be attractive, but the experience could be terrifying. At any rate, the effort to approach that experience is fraught with tremendous resistance, and perhaps always will be. But I let that thought go, let it go again and even say a reluctant good-bye to the hope that on some breathing voyage enlightenment might catch me, rendering effort superfluous.

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